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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

July 17, 2011

O-makase teaching: The 'Leave it to sensei' approach

I have a CD by jazz/avant composer/musician John Zorn called Filmworks, a highlights collection from his various film scores. The liner notes are particularly interesting. Zorn relates the highly independent approach he employs in the studio after he has been commissioned to score a film. If the film director wants to enter the studio they have to pay an extra fee. If they want to be present at the recording session they pay more. If they want to make suggestions and have Zorn listen to their suggestions they pay even more. If the director wants to tell him what to do-- go find another composer, Zorn says, you can't afford me.

Although it makes Zorn come across as a little prickly I like this anecdote. Zorn thinks that the director should trust his sensibilities as a musician/composer- that's how he works best.

A good analogy can be made with fine cuisine. You don't go into El Bulli as a customer and tell Ferran Adria how to prepare your meal. You have to trust his sensibilities. This is why finer restaurants tend to have very small, or even no, selections except for 'tonight's dinner'. You're paying to let them do their work.

Honing sensibilities
This would be an attractive approach for the English teaching profession except that it's difficult to think in terms of celebrity EFL teachers (Jack Richards or David Nunan anyone?). Inexperienced teachers would do well to listen to outside voices but as they accumulate experience I think a similar 'makasete' (leave it to me) method is the best way to go. If you have a long track record of experience and success in the field in particular one should expect to be cut some slack-- but sensibilities have to be honed before others' trust in them can be earned.

Having your teaching sensibilities respected can work in two directions. The first is based upon non-interference from administrators and bureaucrats- leaving the teaching to teachers. The other is not negotiating syllabi with students. Both place a heavy responsibility on the part of the teacher.

I have a simple rule. The larger the class and the younger the students, the less I negotiate the content. In other words, a single PhD candidate who wants me to act as an English advisor, yes we have much to discuss. But a class of 40 university freshmen in a Communication English course? No dice.

Do students know what's best for them?
It's not that I haven't tried it. But experience has taught me that students in such courses rarely know what they want- short of very general targets such as, "to learn how to have conversations in English" or "to make my English more natural". And there's rarely anything approaching a consensus, so carrying out their wishes would fragment the syllabus to the point where it would be hard to really call it a 'syllabus' at all.

In fact, I'd go as far as to say that many students actually find it a little odd that the teacher would be asking them what they want to learn- and I suggest that they might actually lose confidence in a teacher who appeared to not have prepared some set goals and directions based on the teacher's supposed expertise and authority.

[ Sidebar- students often fail to recognize what they've been taught too, even if they seem to have acquired and are applying the skill or target that the teacher intended. Every year I have my first year medical students focus upon taking a patient history but in later years, when asked by visiting foreign lecturers whether or not they've ever been taught to take patient history, even my most astute students for some reason tend to say 'No'.]

Students don't always know what's good for them. If I was going to take up, say, Yoga, I sure wouldn't know what's best for me. And this is precisely what teachers are expected to know- that's why we are... prepare for a shock here...the teachers! For example, my medical students often express a wish "to learn medical English terminology" in my seminar classes. But of course seminar sessions are not the place for specialized lexis and/or translation exercises- they are supposed be for interaction, discussion, and cognitive expansion. Terminology they can get from a dictionary or textbook. Thus, I don't indulge them and I dare say they are better off for it. In this case, not acceding to their wishes actually better serves to meet their needs.

Tweaking our teaching sensibilities
None of this means that teachers should become arrogant, self-satisfied, and oblivious to student responses. Even with all his talent, Lionel Messi doesn't simply grab the ball and shoot it. He is constantly scanning his teammates and opponents to consider his options, using his knowledge of what has or hasn't worked before, and applying these to make the best possible play. Likewise, a good teacher is always scanning the class for hints and feedback and then tweaking the lessons accordingly.

How do we get reliable feedback from the students? Most class surveys are too standardized and banal to be of much use in this regard. I suggest instead that you take note of what I call 'barometer students'. What is a barometer student? Well, as you know there are some students who have such intrinsically low motivation levels that you could have Johhny Depp host the lesson with the Dallas Mavericks and AKB48 invited to do backflips off of beluga whales and these students would still be yawning and gazing into their keitai screens. On the other hand, you have some students who are so genki that you could do a semester on 'The Grain Elevators of Saskatchewan; A Retrospective' and they'd still be appreciative. Your barometer students are those who fall slightly towards the genki side of things. If you have a section or lesson where the facial expressions of your barometer students approximate the existential vacuum of Gauguin's "Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?" canvas, then it's likely time to nuke the activity or lesson rather than being bull-headed and bringing the zombie task back next year simply because 'it is part of the curriculum'.

In my experience there are three common causes for losing your barometer students:
1) They sense that they are just doing this as busy work
2) They have no idea what the teaching points or targeted skill is
3) The lesson seems in no way to fit into a bigger curriculum picture- "Where are we going..."

Teachers can avoid this barometer student ennui by explicitly connecting lessons, continually reinforcing and recycling both skills and languge targets, repeatedly making reference to the course's past while letting students know clearly how todays fits into next week's lesson and the lesson after that.

One way or another, you have to constantly be making adjustments. If Lionel Messi ever becomes too self-satisfied, always making the same move- he is finished. We can apply this to musicians too. A band who follow exactly what their fans want them to do can end up making the same album over and over and actually lose their following because they haven't progressed.

Testing as self-diagnosis
Another way of checking as to whether your students are responding accurately or not is through your evaluations and tests. Tests shouldn't just have a diagnostic function for the students but for the teachers as well! After all, if most of your students are failing your tests it is likely that one of two things is happening:
1) Your evaluation is invalid- you're not actually testing what you think you are testing
2) Your students haven't learned what you want them to because there is some flaw in your teaching method
In analyzing your test results you are gaining valuable feedback about your teaching performance.

Please understand that none of this is about denying your students choices in the classroom, about claiming uniformity to be virtuous, or being teacher-centered in your methodology. Giving students task options helps them to develop autonomy and to expand themselves as learners. But this should be done within a larger framework that has been prepared by the teacher, who should know the road behind and sees the signposts which lead ahead.

In other words, if you are going to bypass the negotiated syllabus or needs analysis routes you're going to have to be highly attuned to these less visceral types of feedback. In my experience; ineffective veteran teachers often think that their sensibilities should be respected based on seniority alone but may in fact be doing little to further hone those sensibilities. If you want both students and administrators to respect your teaching sensibilities, it's your responsibility.

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Insightful as usual. I particularly like the "barometer students" part--it's all too easy to not put it to the front of your mind and let the most enthusiastic students become the default barometers. Good reminder.

It may be a bit out of the realm of the Uni-Files, but I'd like to add an extension of this. I don't get too many requests from students about what they want to study (except for very high level students or those who are top-notch learners and know what they're doing). But I do get parents of young students who make requests. This is actually quite a problem for me and any comments would be welcome. I think I know what I'm doing but there's a disconnect between what I know and what the parents know. And in the last few years I've seen a turn away from the old ideas that whoever is a sensei is an expert in their field and worthy of trust and respect without question.

It's usually parents who fall into either of 2 categories: 1, those who have some sort of background in English or teaching and are skeptical of everything you as a teacher do, especially if it differs from their own experiences. And 2, parents of later elementary school to high school students with little knowledge of English or teaching but see tests as the ultimate trump card over anything. They often want you to prepare their kid for EIKEN or their junior high exams and don't really express any other interest in your curriculum. Long-term goals like "learning a second language" and everything that goes along with that seem to be all swept under the rug of the short-term.

I try to educate parents about what we do and why we do it, but it's a big challenge to get them to value it that takes a lot of effort and time. It's a whole other branch of the operations of our schools. Just teaching the students isn't good enough these days it seems.

Hi Tristan.

I applaud your efforts in trying to help parents understand what your educational process or rationale is-- for those parents who are not teachers- or old-school pedagogues- this can be a difficult task!

Helping students to absorb and apply what they have been taught and, as Eric Skier has pointed out elsewhere, even to become aware of what they've learned is, IMO, the main indicator of good task design and especially, evaluation. If the evaluation is designed such that students become more aware of they do know, what they have learned unconsciously, and allows them to apply this more broadly- that, in my estimation, is a good test.

(blushing) ;-)

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